The Reluctant Patriot

How motherhood made me rethink the Fourth of July


At 2 years old, my son is already a patriot.

This began around his first birthday, when he developed a massive love for flags. Every time we passed one on our walks, he’d point straight at it, his face lit up. This past Fourth of July, when a local realtor stuck business-card-bearing flags into every lawn on our street, Matthew was in ecstasy. My husband and I joke that in sixteen years he’ll shun any political candidate who doesn’t wear the stars and stripes on a lapel pin.

It’s not that he knows what the flag stands for, of course. I’d guess that his passion is a mix of things: the movement of cloth in the breeze; the bright colors; the fact that he sees something he recognizes. But his unabashed enthusiasm has made me think about my own relationship to Old Glory — and to the republic for which it stands.

I’ve never been what you’d call a patriotic person. Yes, I’ve always loved the Fourth of July, but it’s more for the barbecues and the fact that it’s the first real holiday of the long lazy summer. In college and my early twenties, when I studied and then worked in Paris, I diligently tried to avoid being pegged as an American. Living abroad gave me a new perspective on our country: I was critical of our consumption of fuel and food, of the fact that we did not make learning foreign languages a priority. Whenever someone mistook me for Italian or Spanish (which happened often), I was loath to correct them.

Like many Americans, my patriotism grew after 9/11. The magnitude and evil of the attacks affected me deeply. These terrorists just don’t get us, I thought to myself. They don’t realize that most Americans are, fundamentally, generous and good people. The heroism of rescue workers, survivors, and mourning families and friends made me proud. My country became something to defend. But, all too quickly, our government’s response to the attacks made me retreat into my former feelings. The last several years have not been a high point for my sense of patriotism, which I — wrongly, I now see — equated with approval of recent foreign policy.

There is a message in silence

But as a mom, I’m thinking now about the messages I teach my son. Though I’ve been cultivating his Catholic identity by reading him religious books and praying with him, I’ve done practically nothing to develop his American identity. While I’d never badmouth my country to him, I realized that there is a message in silence and inaction as well. Over the six years of our marriage, my husband and I had never displayed the flag — for the simple reason that we had never taken the time to buy one. That thought gave me pause. What does it mean that on July 4, the birthday of the country in which I was born, and to which I returned by choice from living in Europe, I didn’t do anything but eat hamburgers and watch the Capitol Fourth? Shouldn’t I be doing more to publicly mark the day?

At my core, I believe in America. I may be critical of some of my government’s actions, but I cannot imagine living anywhere else but this nation of pioneers and immigrants — gutsy people who have taken risks to fulfill their own potential.

Because, at my core, I believe in America. I may be critical of some of my government’s actions, but I cannot imagine living anywhere else but this nation of pioneers and immigrants — gutsy people who have taken risks to fulfill their own potential. The American Dream doesn’t come true for everyone; far from it. But there’s a freedom here that appeals to me, especially as a writer. If your dream comes true, you can tell your story, but if your dream is denied, you can tell your story, too. You can laud this country for its optimism or you can criticize it for its shortcomings. You may anger others in the process, but you are free to live and to speak your truth. That is no small thing.

My own grandmother knew this. She was born in Chicago to parents who had immigrated from Poland. We have a photo of her as a very young child, on a Fourth of July in the 1920s. She wears a dress of stars and stripes and holds a small flag, squinting into the sun, her mother standing beside her. Six decades later she talked about that day, and about the patriotism of her father, a barber who had come to America to avoid conscription into a foreign army. He loved America. By dressing his daughter as a symbol of the country that had let him live life on his own terms, he was passing that love on to her. As I look at her small scrunched face, I see a family resemblance, the preview of my son in her features.

So this past Fourth of July I bought a big flag, which my husband mounted in front of the house. I hunted down a local parade that had been going on for years, a parade that I’d never known existed, and we joined the crowds lining the downtown streets. Matthew loved the floats and cars, and so did I. Whenever veterans marched by, my husband and I applauded with extra force, and Matthew did, too. As a surprise present, I handed my boy a small flag that I had tucked into the diaper bag. He waved it gleefully, sitting on his daddy’s shoulders, another little patriot squinting into the sun.